Survival Basics

Sinking Ship

Ah, the smell of the salty sea are, and the cool mist of sea spray in your face. The openness of the sea beckons you to a limitless horizon in all directions. You’re on the open water, and there’s no better place on earth!

Until the vessel precariously lists to the side, the crew scrambles, and you hear the dreaded “Abandon Ship!” order come from the speakers.

It is estimated that somewhere between 25 and 100 large vessels sink or simply go missing each year, and that somewhere between 1 and 5 of these annual losses are passenger vessels.  (The low accuracy is due largely to unregulated industry reporting in many countries.) 

How to survive a sinking ship

So, while the odds are low, preparation remains a key factor in surviving this rare event. For any sailor, commercial fisherman, or cruise passenger, methods to survive and escape a sinking vessel should be something you spend some time thinking about, or even practice, before setting out to sea.

sinking ship

Why do vessel sink?


This article will consider three primary root causes of a vessel ceasing to float, upright.  The first is flooding.  When the watertight hull is punctured from damage or running aground, buoyancy is lost or becomes imbalanced, leading to an uncontrollable lean in one direction. The speed and severity of this “tipping over” is related to the location and quantity of water rushing in. The vessel may not sink outright, but becomes uninhabitable to humans at some point in its roll. Structural damage may increase the severity of the situation, as occurred with the Titanic. Flooding may also be caused by uncontrolled leakage, heavy rains, massive waves, and faulty bilge pumps. 

Induced capsizing

The second root cause is induced capsizing. Generally, ships capsize due to uneven weight distribution, tight turn, or an external force such as poor weather or collision. Depending on the vessel’s design, once the center of gravity exceeds a certain angle from its center of buoyancy, gravity takes over to pull the heaviest part of the body downward.


The final root cause is fire. While it may appear to be low-risk due to the ready supply of water, the dangers of a fire lie in the passengers being trapped in the internal sections of the ship, and no simple egress methods. One might think that fire was a greater risk to the wooden ships of old than today’s metallic structures; however, the flammable fluids (fuel, oil, hydraulics) that power today’s vessels are often more combustible than the wood of legacy boats.

What we can do?

Now that we have an appreciation for the dangers, let’s figure out what we can do about them (as passengers—owners and crew of a ship have a very different set of preparations). First, every passenger operation should begin with a safety briefing from the crew. This should include emergency signals, floatation devices, rescue equipment, and egress procedures, and will be different for every type of vessel. As you make your way throughout the various spaces, familiarize yourself with the locations of flashlights, floatation devices, emergency exits, and lifeboats. Be on the lookout for heavy objects that are not secured to the deck or bulkhead (translation: bolted to the floor or wall), as these can slide around and crush a person or change the ship’s center of gravity.

Inform the crew if you notice anything wrong

If you spot something that concerns you, such as water coming from a source that is not a faucet, notify the crew. Like many things in life, early detection is key: it gives the crew time to address the problem before it becomes an emergency. Most modern passenger ships have 1.5 to 2 times the passengers as crewmembers, so use those extra eyes to monitor for issues.

Depending on the size of the ship, it probably has a fire detection and alert system, and is probably required to have fire extinguishers aboard. It is important not to get trapped below the deck: sealing the hatch (door) is crucial to starving a fire of its oxygen supply, but also tends to starve the oxygen from any occupants as well. If you find yourself in a confined space near a fire, use the extinguishers to clear your path back to the open air topside.

What if you have to abandon the ship

In most maritime emergencies, it’s usually safer to remain on the ship than take your chances on the open sea. If the unthinkable happens, and you’re in a situation to abandon the ship (as directed by the captain), it was probably preceded by a loud collision or severe lean. Remain calm and execute the crew’s instructions. If you can’t recall the instructions, try to follow these general principles instead.

  1. If the ship starts to lean, it’s usually better to be topside than belowdecks.
  2. If the ship starts to lean, it’s usually better to go uphill than downhill.
  3. If you are taking on water in an enclosed space, it’s usually not helpful to wear a floatation device.

These guidelines should get you to a safe portion of the ship. As directed by the crew, use the lifeboats to carry you away from the sinking vessel. If lifeboats do not appear to be a viable option (and consider this very carefully), your final option may be to jump for it. Do yourself a favor, and bring that floatation device with you—you’ll be glad you did.

After making it off the ship

Now that you’ve made it off the ship and are comfortably floating in cold water a short distance away, you might have to endure the elements while awaiting rescue. Stay close to the dying vessel: it is probably easier for rescuers to find than you are in the open water.

Lifeboats can offer such amenities as water, food, radios, lights, and blankets—not to mention keeping you out of the cold water. Try to get to one if you can. If a lifeboat is not an option, then you’ll need to keep yourself buoyant, warm, and visible to maximize your chance of rescue.

To stay afloat, use that floatation device that you wisely grabbed before exiting the ship, or keep your clothing inflated. If your shoes float, keep them; if they sink, lose them. Next, try to keep as much of your body, especially your head and core, above the water to slow the onset of hypothermia. Try to seal your pant cuffs and sleeves to keep warmer water enclosed within your clothing. Now, save your energy (and batteries, if you’re lucky enough to have a device) until you see or hear a rescue craft.

If you can spot somebody looking for survivors, you’re almost to safety—you just have to get their attention. Signal mirrors, lights, flares, bright colors, and whistles do well to draw some attention to your location. Splashing is easier to see from the air than waving is. You’ve saved your energy for this moment, so don’t let the opportunity pass you by.

By now, you should feel like the king of the world! (Sorry, couldn’t resist just one Titanic quote.)

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